29th August 2012.
More than 100 protesters from Foil Vedanta and other organisations crowded the entrance to Vedanta Resources’ London AGM and poured red paint on the steps yesterday in an attempt to disrupt the meeting. In Goa and Odisha in India where Vedanta operates, parallel demonstrations involving thousands of people affected by the company’s activities took place on Monday and Tuesday. Inside the AGM the meeting was once again dominated by dissident shareholders who pointed out Vedanta’s racism, major environmental and social violations and poor governance.
More than 100 grassroots protesters gathered at the Lincoln Centre where the AGM was held. They carried placards depicting shocking pictures of Vedanta’s atrocities including the 100 dead at the Korba chimney collapse in 20091 and shouted slogans calling for the arrest of Vedanta chief Anil Agarwal for the hundreds of workers deaths and murders Vedanta is implicated in and shouted ‘blood on your hands!’. They called for London to withdraw support for the company accused by CBI’s Richard Lambert and the British parliament for giving the FTSE 100 a bad name. Despite these scandals Agarwal gave himself a 16% pay rise this year. There was a noticeable absence of NGOs at the demonstration this year, though the grassroots groups managed to draw larger crowds than ever.
Two activists dressed as Vedanta executives and holding Vedanta’s Annual report spilled litres of red paint over a woman covered with a white sheet on the steps of the AGM. Shortly afterwards Anil Agarwal and Vedanta executives arrived in a blacked out car and were unable to enter the AGM, while others trailed the red paint into the building. The symbolic action referred to the hundreds who have died either working at or opposing Vedanta’s factories and mines. In response the protesters chanted ‘murderer!’ and surrounded Anil Agarwal’s car. Before long riot vans of police with tasers arrived to blockade the entrance to the building. Later when a woman was sent to clean up the fake blood with a dustpan and brush the group chanted ‘Vedanta – clean up your own mess!’ and ‘stop the cover up!’ drawing the parallel with the many incidents in which Vedanta has washed its hands of its own atrocities.
Most striking of these examples is the collapse of a 224m chimney at Vedanta subsidiary BALCO’s Korba plant in Chhattisgarh in 2009. 60 workers of the 100 people working on the chimney are still unaccounted for though the company claims only 40 died. Vedanta is trying to pin responsibility for the disaster on Chinese contractor SEPCO, though there is evidence that they were rushing and taking shortcuts in the contrustion of the chimney in anticipation of a visit by SEPCO management scheduled a few days after the collapse. The government’s Buxi inquiry into the disaster has been delayed nine times and is now with the government who have as yet done nothing about it2.
At the London demonstration a 30 foot long banner proclaimed ‘Vedanta: Olympic Champion of Murder, Pollution and Corruption!’ while others held placards with solidarity messages from Trinidad and demands to release Lingaraj Azad, a committed activist in Odisha who is being kept in jail for his involvement with the tribal and farmers struggle against Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mine. Chanting accompanied by drums and a saxaphone were unrelenting at the demonstration. They included ‘Vedanta out of London!’, ‘DfID and Vedanta blood on your hands!’ and lists of the places where Vedanta is being opposed by people’s movements – in Odisha, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Zambia, Liberia and London.
Another placard carried a quote from Richard Lambert – the former Director General of the CBI which was read out in Parliament by Labour MP Lisa Nandy who described Vedanta as ‘one of the companies that have been found guilty of gross violations of human rights’. Lambert said:
‘It never occurred to those of us who helped to launch the FTSE 100 index 27 years ago that one day it would be providing a cloak of respectability and lots of passive investors for companies that challenge the canons of corporate governance such as Vedanta…’ 3
A group from the Save Goa Campaign in London carried banners showing toxic mine waste floods caused by Vedanta subsidiary Sesa Goa. They called for the British Government to help stop illegal mining by Vedanta and others, as recommended by the Early Day Motion scheduled by John McDonnell MP who also attended the demo4.
In Goa itself thousands of villagers took to the streets in a whole day ‘bandh’ on Monday demanding an end to operations at Sesa Goa’s Amona pig iron plant which swamped a 1.5km area with black powder from the plant just last weekend5. The protesters blocked an entire stretch which connects Bicholim with the capital city of Panaji. Sesa Goa is also accused of large scale fraud in Goa and Karnataka. Environmental activist Claude Alvares who attended the demo comments;
“Goa government must takeover Vedanta’s mines in retaliation for the environmental havoc this company’s operations have caused. Vedanta is committed to turning Goa into a graveyard in which it will bury not just the Goans but their environment as well. Almost every mining lease Vedanta is operating violates some environment or mining law, from mining in excess of environment limits to overloading its trucks to distress ordinary folk on Goa’s roads in the mining belt. The company violates its environment clearance conditions with impunity. At the helm in Goa is a BJP government which has acknowledged that its party got funding from Vedanta in excess of Rs.400 crores. What chance do those without cash (mother nature included) have in the circumstances?”
In Bhawanipatna and Lanjigarh in Odisha hundreds of Dongria Kondh tribals whose livelihood is threatened by Vedanta’s plan to mine their sacred mountain rallied alongside farmers and villagers. They called for the final closure of the Lanjigarh alumina refinery at the foot of the threatened Niyamgiri hills after seven years battle to stop the mine. Last week the company admitted it would have to temporarily close the plant due to lack of local bauxite which has incurred huge annual losses for Vedanta Aluminium6.
In Zambia activists published a report for the AGM alongside Chingola villagers detailing the ongoing contamination of their water supply by Vedanta subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines who were already fined $2 million in 2011 for turning the Kafue river green with copper pollution. Edward Lange of Southern Africa Resource Watch who authored the report comments:
“The Kafue river in Chingola on many occasions has been heavily polluted by Konkola copper mines (KCM). Today the river has virtually no form of life in its waters. The boreholes are rarely used by the local Shimulala community because they contain Copper, Iron, Acid and other dangerous minerals. “
Inside the AGM:
Anil Agarwal and several members of his board had to reach the AGM of Vedanta FTSE 100 at the Lincoln Centre, London by a side entrance to avoid the red paint spread all over the steps of the Lincoln Centre yesterday by protesters, and had to leave surreptitiously through a back door. In the building the atmosphere was also tense and hostile at times, with G4S security guards trying to prevent Foil Vedanta’s Samarendra Das, a dissident shareholder, from entering. When he pointed out in the meeting that he’d just had a taste of the way Vedanta treated its critics in India Anil Agarwal apologised saying that wouldn’t happen again.
While shareholders accused the company of human rights abuses, pollution and neglecting the law. Anil Agarwal’s answers were an exercise in fudging and stonewalling. For example when asked by a representative for Standard Life, who hold 9 million shares, about the preponderance of Agarwals on the board (who are all family members of the CEO), he replied ‘So what, the UK is full of people called David but it means nothing’. Human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger accused the company of human rights and environmental violations in Odisha and the arrests of 47 people and beating up of women because they were protesting about the expansion of the Red Mud ponds in violation of laws. Anil Agarwal replied ingenuously that Ms Jagger should let him know next time she visits so he could provide Vedanta escorts who would show her another side of the story.
Stephanie Myers from Aviva expressed her serious concerns about Vedanta. The drop in share prices in recent years she said was due to mismanagement of the Dongria Kond issue. Peter Frankental from Amnesty asked the board: “Do you take these findings and allegations seriously and what are you going to do about them?” After insisting that Vedanta ‘was fully governed by the law’ Vedanta non-executive director Naresh Chandra (India’s ex-Home Minister) said: “Give us the information and we will have it investigated”.
Samarendra Das from Foil Vedanta challenged the company on it’s opinion quoted from p.26 of its 156 page report Vedanta’s Perspective that the Dongria Kond are not indigenous people but simply ‘backward’. ‘This is a racist remark which is unacceptable’, he said. The report by Vedanta is an attempt to answer the criticisms levelled against it by NGOs. Anil Agarwal replied that OBC (Other Backward Castes) was an Indian government term and then in a wonderful Freudian slip he pointed to Vedanta board member and former deputy secretary of home affairs of India Naresh Chandra saying ‘He runs the government’.
Samarendra Das also questioned the board on the ambiguous way they use their Anglo-Indian status to avoid accountability in London; ‘You say you represent India, but this is a British company. Are you India Incorporated, the Indian government or a British company?’. Another shareholder tried to show the board pictures of child labour being used in the Bodai Daldali mines in Chhattisgarh and toxic mine waste floods in Goa. They refused to look at the pictures saying that they could have been taken anywhere and were not verified. Agarwal then claimed that if he really cared he would have taken this matter to the managers at the sites themselves, to which the shareholder replied that he was bringing these pictures on behalf of affected people in India who couldn’t be here but want justice.
Carmen Miranda of the Save Goa Campaign accused the company of looting 50% of the drinking water in Goa and urged them not to sell the mining dumps but use them to repair the damage caused by the strip cast mining, Agarwal fobbed her off by claiming ‘We have already rehabilitated the mines’. Carmen Miranda’s replied that that happened to only one mine – twenty years ago.
The Survival International shareholder told the AGM of the experiences of the Niyamgiri villagers who had said that not only were they never consulted about any of Vedanta’s activities but ‘They speak to us only when we are arrested and beaten, They threaten to beat us up again if we talk about Vedanta to other villagers’. Other issues brought up were the BALCO chimney collapse, where engineering practice has been found culpable. The Vedanta board replied that they would follow the legal procedures.
Vedanta – world’s most hated company
Vedanta have been named the ‘world’s most hated company’ by the Independent newspaper for their long list of environmental and human rights crimes for which they are being opposed all over the world7. Most famously Vedanta’s plan to mine a mountain sacred to the Dongria Kondh tribe in Orissa, India, has led to mass protests and the Bank of England among others pulling out investments. On Sunday Northern Irish public sector pensions pulled £1.1 million worth of shares out of the company8.
Protestors also drew attention to recent news including:
- British Government’s ongoing support for Vedanta through DfID, and even David Cameron, who were recently revealed to have forced through a deal to buy out energy company Cairn India by pressuring the Indian Government9.
- Vedanta’s ten billion dollar debt crisis which Credit Suissie Group says is the reason for Vedanta’s recent attempt to merge two of its subsidiaries Sesa Goa and Sterlite to create a so-called ‘corporate rubbish bin’.’Sesa Sterlite, as the new company will be known, will, according to the analysts ‘have a market capitalization of about $20 billion, making it big enough to house Vedanta’s unwanted assets’ and also ‘the recently acquired 38.8% stake in Indian oil company Cairn India Ltd., and, more importantly, the $5.9 billion of Vedanta debt linked to the stake. In it, too, goes Vedanta’s 70% stake in Vedanta Aluminum, a money-losing operation that has about $4 billion of debt’
- Vedanta’s continued donations to India’s two main political parties, the ruling Congress and the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP11. Under the name Anil Agarwal foundation, it also supports projects such the Krishna Avanti Primary school in London partly funded by the I- foundation which has close links to the Hindu supremacist groups.
- Vedanta’s involvement in the gigantic CAG report Coal scam which is currently rocking the government of Manmohan Singh12.
Samarendra Das from Foil Vedanta says:
““Vedanta symbolises the new face of India Incorporated where more than 80% of people do not have enough to live on where as Bollygarchs like Anil Agarwal are allowed a free loot of its resources for their own personal wealth. With popular resistance against Vedanta erupting in Goa, and Odisha and scandals in the Indian parliament over the CAG report, the world is seeing their true colours.”
See the video of the demonstration here: Foil Vedanta AGM protest 2012
More photos of the demo here and at the demotix website.
Some coverage of the AGM protests:
The Financial Times (UK national) Vedanta protest besieged by protests
The Guardian Newspaper (UK national) Protesters challenge Vedanta on Human Rights
The Independent Newspaper (UK national) Mining giant’s AGM under siege over rights abuses
The Hindu Newspaper (Indian national) UK rights groups protest against Vedanta
The Economic Times of India (indian national) Protestors hold demonstration outside Vedanta’s London Annual General Meeting
The Business Standard (Indian national) Demonstration outside Vedanta’s London AGM
Wall Street Journal Vedanta under a microscope
Daiji world (blog), Dr. Anjali Mohan Rao Coalgate stained Vedanta faces protest in Goa and London
Demotix article and photos. Blood on the steps protest outside Vedanta’s AGM in London
News first (magazine) Protest against Vedanta for Human Rights violations, pollution and corruption.
War on want (blog) Protests target Vedanta mine’s abuse
1Krishnendu Mukherjee, 2010, ‘Korba Chimney accident: Unanswered questions’ www.d-sector.org/article-det.asp?id=1103
2 Translated from PATRIKA Thursday – 17TH August, 2012.BALCO CHIMNEY TRAGEDY – Even after one week no explanation on Buxi Commission Report.